Meet the New Culinary Disruptors
Driven by a desire to create memorable experiences, a Ritz-Carlton chef and mixologist are shaking things up by putting creative spins on classic fare — reinventing beachside dining for a new era.
The Ritz-Carlton dining experience has long maintained a reputation for excellence. Whether feasting on classic filet and foie gras atop a white linen tablecloth or on seafood tacos and hand-crushed guacamole next to a white sand beach, the culinary offerings are consistently superb. In recent years, though, a new crop of chefs and mixologists are lending a fresh perspective to the restaurants and cocktail bars in its hotels and resorts around the globe. George Fistrovich, executive chef at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, and Amba Lamb, head mixologist at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, are two whose original ideas and passion are challenging the very traditional definition of upscale dining.
A Culinary Speakeasy on the Florida Coast
After a decades-long career in the culinary world that has taken him to seven countries over four continents, chef George Fistrovich came to The Ritz-Carlton, Naples in 2011. As the executive chef, Fistrovich oversees a 100-plus member culinary team, as well as eight restaurants, in-room dining, and catered events — all while maintaining a level of excellence at each. The chef insists on making as much in-house as possible, including bread, pickles, pasta, pastries and ice cream, and three years ago, he launched a program to grow hyper-local lettuce and micro greens on-property via a portable grow house, teaching himself to use the methods by watching YouTube videos of the process. Now, guests can sample the greens in the Little Gems or Caesar salad, or sprinkled over the fresh fish at coastal Italian restaurant Terrazza, among other restaurants on the property.
Recently, chef Fistrovich unveiled his latest project — one that exemplifies his spirit of innovation and commitment to delivering a memorable and unique experience to their guests. After Hurricane Irma swept through Florida, the chef was unexpectedly inspired to build a brand-new dining concept that pushes the boundaries of a typical restaurant experience. The high winds downed several trees in an alley behind the resort’s pool deck, and instead of replanting, he got the idea to dig down a little further to create a pit for wood-fired roasting and grilling. He worked with his talented staff to transform the small area into Alley Kitchen. Now, visiting chefs bring their specialties to Naples for pop-up dinners, cooking alongside chef Fistrovich while diners are situated at tables around the open kitchen. The restaurant has hosted Giorgio Rapicavoli from Eating House in Miami, Rodrigo Carrasco from Bowie in Mexico City and Anthony Cole from Chatham Bars Inn — all serving dishes that take advantage of the open kitchen’s wood-fired grill and oven, like pit-roasted beets with local honey, grilled whole lobster and so much more.
The chef creates these culinary experiences as a way to bring The Ritz-Carlton ethos directly to the table. “I was recently watching a rerun from Anthony Bourdain No Reservations, and [chef] Marco Pierre White said it best: ‘Out of the top three reasons a guest comes out to eat is No. 1: destination; No. 2: service; and No. 3: food,’” he says. “At Alley Kitchen, our goal is to provide all three.”
Re-imagining the Tropical, Beachside Cocktail
Due south, at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, Amba Lamb is proving that guests also come for the cocktails. The head mixologist hails from New Zealand, where she studied electrical technology with the intention of joining the New Zealand Air Force. Fate intervened when the county discontinued its fleet of fighter jets, and instead, she traveled and embarked on a new career.
Over four years after joining The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, Lamb has played a pivotal role in changing the face of the beverage scene, in part, by challenging what defines a traditional tropical cocktail. “When I started, we were definitely weighted towards the more generic tropical drinks,” says Lamb. “Things have changed a lot in favor of more fresh and local products, and away from heavy and sweet drinks. A light refreshing Cucumber Collins by the pool can be even better than a heavy strawberry daiquiri — and a rum old fashioned before dinner is magic.”
The award-winning mixologist is also a certified sommelier, and has earned certifications in beer, sake and spirits. (She says tea education is next.) While she’s traveled extensively — 87 countries and counting — Lamb maintains that both the brand and its location are special. “We have staff from all around the world, so that diversity is extremely valuable for new ideas and even for ideas with flavors,” she says. “We have some great local farmers and artisans that we can work with, they often bring us new produce to play with, last week it was huge, ripe jackfruit. Delicious!”
What unites Lamb and Fistrovich, as well as countless other talented chefs, bartenders, bakers, and more culinary professionals, is the desire to create a distinctive experience for their guests.
“In the world we live in, continuous innovation and lasting inspiration is key. Our legacy is to be the best, and the mark is constantly shifting, so we need to be the ones who set the trends to give our guest everything we have to enhance all three,” says chef Fistrovich. “Alley Kitchen gives our chefs on property freedom to cook in a nonconventional way, and the guest an unconventional venue to receive an authentic Ritz-Carlton experience completely different than expected. This is how memories are created, through the unexpected.”